Wembley Downs Uniting Church
Current Sermons
Transfiguration - From Christian Past to Global Future (Dr Richard Smith) 11.2.2018
Reading: Mark 9:2-9

As the human race migrated to the four corners of the earth, they diverged into many different religious and ethnic groups. The human race, now 8 billion in number, is rapidly converging into a globalized society faced with the challenge of sharing a finite earth. As pressure builds, ancient tribalism, fuelled by religious and secular fundamentalism, is threatening the very fabric of civilisation in many parts of the world. As God warned Cain in Genesis 4, unless humankind resists reciprocal acts of violence escalation will lead to mutual destruction. A Transfiguration of the religious faiths that have served us so well in the past is urgently needed for the global era we now face.

The Transfiguration story comes out of a faith response by Jesus` disciples when faced with the bloody violence of the Roman Empire that destroyed their Temple and many innocent lives in AD 70.

This was not exactly how the Transfiguration story was understood by scholars of the 19th and 20th Century or even now. They had concluded that the Transfiguration was not a supernatural event but an early Resurrection vision that they believed did not belong chronologically within the ministry of Jesus, where they thought Mark`s Gospel had mistakenly placed it, to be followed by Matthew and Luke. Indeed, this story they believed pointed to an early post-Easter vision which contributed to the resurrection stories of the Easter faith. That is why today`s Transfiguration Sunday is placed between Epiphany and Lent in our Liturgical Cycle.

Later scholarship in the 20th C suggested that the Transfiguration story originated from the Jewish festival of Hanukkah - a celebration of the reclamation of their Temple following the Maccabean rebellion in 167BC against the Syrian-Greek Empire. They relit the flame of the Menorah and rededicated their Temple to symbolize the presence of God in their midst. But ethnic, religious and economic tensions continued to brew below the surface as Roman oppression took over from the Greeks. Some four decades after the death of Jesus, contrary to his teaching to love their enemies, there was another Jewish rebellion. This time the Roman response was `Shock and Awe` as General Titus totally and permanently destroyed their Temple, extinguishing the Light and hauling their sacred Menora back to Rome. All that is left now is the Western Wailing Wall.

When the Gospels were written some years after the fall of Jerusalem, there was no Temple within which the light of God could be present. Consequently, in the Transfiguration, Jesus is seen by his disciples as the `New Temple`; the new meeting place between God and humankind. It was a radical claim that would ultimately give birth to Christianity and its mission to spread the light of God based on Jesus` life and teachings. That is why in this story, the light comes so powerfully onto Jesus that his face, reminiscent of what had happened to Moses thousands of years earlier, glowed with a translucent, heavenly light. Jewish readers would recognize all of these symbols. They knew the content of the Gospel story came right out of the Jewish Scriptures where light is the pre-eminent symbol of God`s presence in the world.

Later, when the Christian Church had become primarily Gentile and largely ignorant of both the Jewish scriptures and Jewish worship traditions, they began to assume that the Transfiguration was a literal story of supernatural power that really happened in time and space. This biblical literalism based on a belief in the existence of two separate universes of Heaven and Earth continues in many parts of Christianity today.

The legacy of the Transfiguration, 1500 years later, led to the Reformation, which brought Christianity back to the Bible and liberated human reason from control by the Catholic Church. The Protestants would soon attempt their own controls, but they could not stop the Enlightenment (coming of the Light) from dispelling ignorance and superstition. It led to Science, unique to the Western world, which came out of the Judaic-Christian belief in monotheism, expressed so clearly and succinctly in the opening chapter of the Bible, in which everything was thought to flow from one creative source and constitute a Universe. This new understanding of the creation story led to natural theology (study of nature) to revealing the Light of God. From a religious perspective John`s Gospel had already identified a source of this Light with the life and teachings of Jesus. Science went on to reveal Nature as a complementary source of divine Light. Such combined scientific and religious `light` is urgently needed in the 21st Century, to dispel the darkness of humankind`s many apocalyptic scenarios. We have been gifted the `Light` of both religion and science - two sides of the same coin. A new religious awakening awaits us when we awaken to how intimately connected are religion and science.

This light of religion and science has achieved much throughout history. For example, inspired by Jesus` ethical teachings, Thomas Jefferson, 244 years ago wrote to King George III of England: `We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness`. This famous piece of political theology began the democratic transformation throughout the world with periodic collapses back into authoritarianism. Just 100 years ago England granted women the right the vote - an emancipation whose beneficial impacts are still reverberating throughout the world. Fifty-two years ago, Martin Luther King said, `The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice`, pushing back systemic discrimination against African-Americans. Fifty-one years ago, our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders won recognition as citizens. One year later humans on the Apollo 8 space mission to the Moon looked back at Earth from outer space. The image transmitted back, of Earth in the vastness of space has had a profound impact on human awareness, channeling human energy and religious consciousness back towards care for life on planet earth.

I am inspired by such present-day expressions of faith when I see locally:

  • Churches displaying topical banners such as yours; the support you give Asylum seekers, to the Rainbow group and more.
  • Your work for Eddie and Sandra`s extended family in East Africa.
  • Our outreach together to the indigenous people of Mowanjum and Papua.
  • Playgroups for young children and their carers, and Kids Hope mentoring by Floreat.
  • Initiatives for the care for our fragile planet.
  • Support for the Progressive Christian movement which encourages everyone to seek God, however understood, guided by the life and teachings of Jesus.

I pray that the Transfiguration will be a `Mountain Top Experience`, of our lived Christian experience together, today and into the future.

Anon, 2018, Eight Points by PCN Britain: https://www.pcnbritain.org.uk/about/the_eight_points
Joseph A. Bessler, 2013, A Scandalous Jesus: How Three Historic Quests Changed Theology for the Better. Polebridge Press.
Lloyd Geering, 1998, How Did Jesus Become God—and Why? The Fourth R Vol. 11-5, 1998.
Lloyd Geering, 2013, The World to Come: From Christian Past to Global Future. Kindle.
John S Spong, 1996, Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes. HarperSanFrancisco.
E A Saunders. 1991. Paul: A Very Short Introduction. Kindle.
Richard Smith, 2018, Letter to Revive, UCA WA - February 2018.

130 Calais Road, (crnr of Minibah Street)
Wembley Downs, Western Australia.
Phone 08 9245 2882

Ten kilometres northwest of Perth city centre,
set amongst the suburbs of City Beach, Churchlands,
Scarborough, Wembley Downs and Woodlands